Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • August 2016
    M T W T F S S

Pada Yathra in retrospect

Posted by harimpeiris on August 15, 2016

Pada Yathra in retrospect

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News on 12/08/16)


The much heralded Pada Yathra or protest march by the Joint Opposition is now over and with the dust settling, the political impact and more lasting impact of the march on Sri Lanka’s political process should be accessed. Billed as the major initiative of the Joint Opposition for the mid-year, its organizers and JO theoreticians never meant it to be a regime changer of the Arab Spring variety, but rather as former President Rajapaksa himself described it, a rehearsal or a litmus test if you like of the joint oppositions mobilizing power and political strength.


Now the JO in parliament is relatively weak, at a little below fifty MPs in the two hundred and twenty-five-member assembly, the JO effectively concedes a constitution change enabling two third majority to the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe national unity government. With President Rajapaksa making only rare appearances in Parliament it falls on the shoulders of Dinesh Gunawardena to lead the JO in Parliament, but representing a single member MEP, he doesn’t carry much clout with either SLFP activists or nationally at the grass root level.


To compensate for a lack of gravitas in the House, the JO thrives on populist politics out of parliament and on the streets. However, even in this respect, the Pada Yathra was only a limited success. It did not attract mass support as it marched through towns, it was merely the organized activists who dutifully turned up as they would for a May-day rally.


Limits of ethnic nationalism


The Mahinda Rajapaksa led JO vision for the SLFP, is to turn it into a counterpart of the TNA, a regional political party with an appeal limited to only a single ethnic group. The TNA appeals to Tamil voters and draws support only from the North and East. The JO would wish to make the SLFP led UPFA to appeal only to Sinhala voters and draw support largely from the South and the Sinhala rural hinterlands and have no appeal to urban cosmopolites, ethnic and religious minorities. Coupled with disastrous and allegedly corrupt governance, such a limited appeal was what made the Rajapaksa presidency come to a premature end. The Rajapaksa political project when in government, ratcheted up majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism to its highest peak and yet at two elections last year came up well short. Why it believes that more of the same, will deliver a different result is hard to fathom. Perhaps it is what political theorists refer to as the lack of a moral imagination, the inability to see political possibilities, opportunities and necessities while being stuck in the past.


The Pada Yathra unified the Government


Given the initial two-year period of approval for the National Government granted by the SLFP central committee at the conclusion of last year’s general election, there was some genuine ambiguity at least within SLFP circles about the duration of the Unity Government. It is a well-known political fact that some activists and other political elements were working towards a rapprochement between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions of the SLFP, with the intent of replacing Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and the UNP with the Rajapaksa and the JO section of the UPFA. The intended outcome went even beyond a regime reconfiguration and was essentially a regime change without a parliamentary election, now barred under the 19th Amendment.  It was to pander to this theory that the JO stalwarts kept repeating with little credibility that its opposition was not to President Sirisena but to the Wickramasinghe led government. This fig leaf came off entirely though the Pada Yathra. As best denoted by the novice Chilaw District MP, now suspended from the SLFP, for his vitriolic attacks against President Sirisena, the JO hostility is against both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. President Rajapaksa can seemingly never forget that he was beaten twice in one year, in January by President Sirisena and after wresting leadership of the UPFA campaign in August for a re-run as a multi-party exercise rather than the presidential two horse race, he again lost, this time to the Premier Wickramasinghe led UPFA in August last year. The JO hostility is towards both political entities that defeated them, not just one.


However, the political result of the JO populist assault on the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration was that it made the Government close ranks. The SLFP Central Committee actually passed a resolution authorizing the National Unity Government for its full five-year term.  Most importantly President Sirisena, who faces the internal SLFP dissension, pledged and reiterated his political commitment to the national unity political arrangement. The Pada Yathra had the effect of last year’s presidential election it unified all Rajapaksa opponents against the JO. Even the JVP which had been studiously avoiding criticizing the previous Rajapaksa Administration after the general elections and focusing on being opposition watch dogs over the current Administration relaunched blistering and coordinated political attacks on Rajapaksa, the entire JVP leadership pitched into the Rajapaksa’s track record in governance and alleged corruption.


Within Sri Lanka, the Pada Yathra made six point two (6.2) million Sri Lankans to refocus their minds on why eighteen months ago they voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa and for Maithripala Sirisena. Not with standing a VAT tax increase and the slow pace of investigations into past regime abuses, there are seemingly few takers, at least willing to take to the streets, out of nostalgia for a return to Rajapaksa rule.

(The writer is Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are personal)


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